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Irons, who also served as Vashon's interim principal in 2003-'04 and acting principal in 2002-'03, expressed outrage when reached for comment last week. "I don't think you would go to Parkway and do those white kids like you would do our kids," Irons responded. "Why would I give you a reaction to something I have no knowledge of? And the fact of the matter is you're not going around getting information on every kid and every school. You're picking on one school. So why would I give you a response for that?"
Irons then hung up the phone.
In addition to Irons, former Vashon principals Calvin Starks and the late Dorothy Ludgood, as well as ex-athletic directors Russell Arms and Jim Ford, vouched for the school's eligibility rosters in recent years. Starks and Arms did not return calls requesting comment for this story. Ford could not be reached.
The St. Louis Public Schools classify Vashon High as a "neighborhood school." Unlike "magnet schools," which are open to students throughout the school district and St. Louis County, neighborhood schools draw students from a strictly defined area. Vashon's neighborhood boundaries extend from Grand Avenue south to Lafayette Avenue, and from the riverfront west roughly to Grand Boulevard (see map on page 18).
In order to register at a St. Louis public school, the district requires that a student supply proof typically a utility bill, lease agreement or mortgage statement that his or her family's residence lies within the school's mandated attendance area.
In the case of neighborhood schools, explains Louis Kruger, executive director of business operations for the SLPS, "Basically, wherever a student sleeps is where they should be attending school." If a student moves out of one school's boundaries, the district requires that he or she enroll in the new neighborhood's school or apply for admission to a magnet school.
Kruger says the district makes exceptions in special circumstances, but he can't quantify how often. "A few years ago we had a girl who went to Roosevelt [High School] who said she was raped," Kruger notes by way of example. "The alleged rapist had family members at Roosevelt, and the girl was getting harassed because she had gone to authorities with her allegations. So we moved her from Roosevelt to another school."
Administrators may also reassign disruptive students, and so-called hardship exceptions can be made for students in precarious financial situations; most commonly, according to Kruger, the latter are elementary-age children whose babysitter or daycare facility is located near a neighborhood school they wouldn't otherwise attend. Kruger adds that an assistant superintendent at district headquarters is required to approve and document each and every transfer.
Residency is also a cornerstone of athletic eligibility.
According to MSHSAA bylaw 238.2, a student is eligible to participate in varsity sports "in the district in which the student's parents reside" and "at the school designated for them to attend by the board of education."
The regulation specifically defines "parents" as the student's natural, foster or adoptive parents, or a family with whom the student has been living continuously for at least 365 days. Legal guardians only qualify if both natural parents are legally incompetent or dead. Bylaw 238.1, meanwhile, defines "residence" as a "permanent home" where the family "regularly eats and sleeps."
It is up to a school's athletic director and/or principal to verify that each athlete is in compliance with MSHSAA requirements, says Rick Kindhart, one of MSHSAA's assistant executive directors. "We are relying on the integrity of administrators to submit the proper paperwork," says Kindhart.
According to school district data obtained by Riverfront Times, students who lived outside Vashon's boundaries regularly transferred to the school and joined the basketball team. But the data contain no evidence of the required administrative permission to enroll having been filed. Similarly, some roster members enrolled at Vashon while living within the school's boundaries, then moved away but continued to attend the school (and play basketball) again apparently without the required permission being filed.
An example of the former is Kenneth Harris Jr., a member of the class of 2008. During the 2005-'06 season, Harris suited up for 27 of the Wolverines' 29 games a year after scoring 212 points and nabbing 80 rebounds as a freshman starter for the Tigers of Soldan High, a magnet school.
According to state bylaws, transfer students are athletically ineligible for 365 days following enrollment unless the cause for the switch meets one of nine exceptions, the most common being a full-family move into a school's attendance boundaries. Other exceptions, meticulously defined in bylaw 238.3, encompass transfers from corresponding neighborhood middle schools, nonmember schools, unaccredited public schools, boarding schools and foreign exchange programs. Any transfer motivated by athletics is considered a violation.
Stacy Schroeder, a MSHSAA assistant executive director, says a student may transfer from a magnet into a neighborhood school and retain eligibility, provided the player and his parents live in the new school's attendance district. But according to district data, Harris lived with his parents, Kenneth and Darlene Harris, on Shenandoah Avenue in the Shaw neighborhood: Roosevelt High School's attendance area.
The only way Harris could have been eligible to play for Vashon last year would have been for the school to obtain a "hardship" exception from MSHSAA, according to Schroeder, who oversees such requests.